We Need to Talk About the Bullies in the Room
It may seem rather harsh, but we have to speak to this. When we were elementary school children, recess was fun until the bullies took over the playground. Then no one, not even the bullies, had fun. The comradery and freedom of recess was no more. And the only hope was that the adult on playground duty knew how to manage the bullies – marginalize them, placate them perhaps, but most of all now allow them to take control; not allow them to bully. Without an adult, the bullies held sway.
I wonder: can we speak of bullies in our workspaces? And the same with the church communities of which we are a part. As often as not they are more subtle in their bullying, but let’s call it what it is. We are dealing with someone who only knows one way of operating – as a bully.
Sometimes, it is a person who has a feeling of entitlement, for whatever reason. Perhaps they were a founding member of the church and they feel that gives them a privileged voice – essentially, veto power. They expect their voice or opinion to have greater weight.
Some bully by sheer dint of their personality: they are not interested in any other view or opinion, but only their own. And it amazes me how sometimes in a faculty meeting they make this point by standing when they speak: everyone offers their opinion from their seat, tentatively, waiting to see what others have to say. But the bully has already decided that his or her views are the only views that matter and in standing to offer an opinion, with a raised voice, the tenor of the meeting changes. There is no listening; only speaking for these folks.
At other times, the bully might not even be in the room. In my first church as pastor, it took me a while to see that the elders’ board were all beholden to two powerful widows – tall, large women, who tolerated no dissent. And even though absent, they insisted that there’s was the default voice of the church. Pastors and elders has gotten into the habit of deferring to them. And they had come to expect it.
One form of bullying is the overt or less than overt threat: in the playground . . . “if I do not get my way, I will leave and take my toys with me.” On a faculty, it might be: “if this motion passes, then I fear it will mean that have to submit my resignation.” Or the wealthy church member who threatens to withdraw financial support. And when it works, it only reinforces their approach to working with others: bullying works and so they bully. Well, until it does not work. Until someone does not give them what they think is their due. Confident and mature leadership has to include two things: refusing to succumb to the bully and actively keeping the bully from dominating the committee meeting or the decision making process of the organization.
The only hope we have is that the chair of the committee or the chair of the board or the pastoral leadership or the president of the organization can play the role of the adult on the playground – someone to marginalize, placate and do what is needed to keep the bullies from holding sway.
What if the bully is the board chair? Or the pastor? Or the president of the country or of the organization? Then we have tyranny. And it is doubly difficult to manage. The only hope is for one and all to band together and refuse to allow the bully to have undue influence. But this is so very difficult when the bully has “god” on their side [they claim to be speaking for God] or when they claim a particular prerogative or right to “lead”. And indeed a key sign of a bully in a leadership position is that they assume that in the end they have no accountability; there are no checks and balances. There is no deferral to another voice or to the process.